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(The 2017 Tribeca Film Festival runs April 19-30. We’ll be having a smattering of reviews throughout the festival so stay tuned to HtN…)

Completing my tetralogy of recent documentaries (which include Trophy, The Islands and the Whales and A River Below) about the end of the world – or, at least, about the destruction of certain parts of it – comes The Last Animals, a heart-breaking, close-up examination of the final days of certain near-extinct species of animals. From war photographer Kate Brooks, whose first feature this is, the movie chronicles, in harrowing detail, how little time remains before humanity further eradicates not just individual species, but possibly entire genera, as well. As Brooks intones, in voiceover, at the end, “If we don’t stop the killing, it will be just us as the last animals.”

In case one cares not for such matters, Brooks also makes the argument that the trafficking in animals parts contributes to global terrorism, since the market for ivory and rhino horns, whether in legitimate or black markets, funds conflicts in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and beyond. That bracelet made from an elephant’s tusk on sale in Vietnam – or the United States, where legal sales provide cover for illegal trading – may just be putting money in the pocket of leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army or, if not them, then that of a just-as-unpalatable global crime ring. The world needs laws, and enforcement of those laws, to stop the mass slaughter of elephants and rhinos – which will soon lead to their extinction if not stopped – as much for the sake of us humans as for the animals, themselves.

Nowhere is this brought more directly home than in the story of the Northern White Rhino, of which only five remain – five! – as the film begins. By the time our story ends, only three are left. They are gentle creatures, much beloved by their caretakers, but since their horns – made of keratin, the same material of which our nails and hair are made – are believed to contain all sorts of miraculous properties, particularly in Asia, they have been hunted to the point where none now remain in the wild. Attempts to breed them in captivity have failed, and so now some biologists are looking to cross them with the Southern White Rhino to create some form of viable hybrid. To fend off poachers, their guardians saw off their horns, but sometimes the sedation to do so can lead to death, as well, as we witness, tragically, at one point in the film. Filled with moments like this, The Last Animals is tough to sit through. Still, to turn away from the horror would be to deny its urgency, and no one who cares about the state of our planet should do so.

As with the other, above-mentioned documentaries on similar topics, what makes The Last Animals especially powerful is the manner in which Brooks examines the human cost of the killings (even beyond the links to terrorism). What options do the poor residents of these war-torn regions in central Africa have, beyond poaching? Brooks embeds herself in platoons of militarized rangers in Garamba National Park – an act of cinematic bravery if there ever was one – and when we see the state of the men they capture (after battle, covered in blood), it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the prisoners, despite what they’ve done. And therein lies the riddle. How can we prevent mass extinction when those perpetrating the acts have no other options? Brooks has no easy answers, but her remarkable, if brutal, movie at least forces us to confront the harsh realities that, without collective action, will forever alter our future. It’s probably too late for the Northern White Rhino, but maybe not for the elephants. Maybe.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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